I’m not sure when exactly I begin to feel a thaw towards Jimmy Kimmel. But as I listened to his monologue and watched him tear up the day after the Las Vegas shootings, I found myself realizing that this was the Jimmy Kimmel that I’ve come to expect and even enjoy. In fact, I like him so much now that I had completely forgotten the virtual hatred that I used to feel for the guy.
Let me back up a little. I became familiar with Jimmy Kimmel soon after he came on the television scene in the late ’90s. I was working in radio at the time, and he had just transitioned from college student to radio DJ to cohost of his own TV show. Somewhere during his radio career, Kimmel met up with consummate frat boy Adam Carolla, who was, at the time, a comedian and cohost of the sex advice radio show Loveline. Carolla and Kimmel managed to land themselves on Comedy Central with a variety program they called The Man Show. That title should tell you everything. Sketches included high-brow fare like women jumping on trampolines and an underage boy selling beer. During tapings, the studio audience was entertained by female dancers known as the Juggy Dance Squad. And yes, there were stripper poles.
To me, the show and its hosts were both a symptom and a cause of all that was wrong with young men in America. As I am about the same age as Kimmel and Carolla, this was also what was wrong with the young men I was dating. The Man Show ran for about five years and garnered the duo enough clout to set up a production company, which they named Jackhole Productions. With that, they launched their second show, Crank Yankers, a program about making prank phone calls where the parts of the conversation were acted out by puppets. It was equally asinine.
So, in 2003, when Kimmel was given his own late-night talk show, I was flummoxed. But this was about the time when TV was trying to figure out its next incarnation. Survivor and American Idol were all the rage. Carson Daly (fun fact: he once interned for Kimmel) had his own talk show. So it wasn’t out of bounds that Kimmel could be a late-night host, but in my opinion, he was just a terrible one.
Late-night talk show hosts may be celebrities, but they are not the stars of their own show; they’re facilitators for the audience to get to know the human side of our favorite artists. But Kimmel-as-host was full of arrogance. His interviews were awkward and dull. His monologues were scathing. In trying to emulate David Letterman’s carefully cultivated cool, he came off as uninterested, talking over his guests and jabbing at them when he wasn’t entertained.
I went along happily hating Kimmel and ignoring his talk show. Then, along came Matt Damon.
Somewhere in the reaches of the web, I stumbled across a compilation of all the times Kimmel announced that they were out of time for Matt Damon on his show. It was a joke, Damon explained to Parade, which began at the end of one particularly bad show. “I think my guests were a ventriloquist and a guy in a monkey suit,” Kimmel explained to Damon. “We were wrapping it up, and there was a smattering of applause in the audience. I was having kind of a low moment, and I just said, ‘My apologies to Matt Damon; we ran out of time.’ My producer was right off camera and he doubled over laughing. It was just gallows humor. Nobody else got the joke. But it made us laugh, so we started doing it every night. I have no idea why I said you; it could have been anybody.”
That was pretty funny, I thought. Conan funny, not Carolla funny.
Then, Kimmel got parents to tell their kids they ate all their Halloween candy, which was classic Kimmel for its mean spirit but also hysterical in a less harmful way.
But it was Kimmel’s hosting gigs at the Emmys in 2012 and 2016 and the Oscars in 2017 that really tipped me off that he was softening. Maybe it has something to do with aging, marriage or fatherhood — it has been nearly 20 years since his Man Show days — or maybe he was just mellowing his shtick to fit his growing audience, but this Kimmel seemed to realize he was not the star we were showing up to see. And in that realization, he became someone worth watching. Check out his sharp yet respectful and funny takedown of Matthew McConaughey:
By the time the 2017 Oscars aired, I was interested to watch it just to see Kimmel, and he did not disappoint. From asking Denzel Washington to officiate the wedding of two befuddled tourists to playing Matt Damon off the stage while he was presenting, Kimmel made the show charmingly funny and relatable for the home viewer.
And this year, Kimmel has surpassed even Letterman, his idol, as a late-night host by allowing the audience into more of his personal life than almost any talk show host has. In April, following an emergency heart surgery performed on his 3-day-old son, Kimmel took several nights off. During his first show back, he told his son’s story in an emotional monologue and took time to thank the entire hospital team that had worked to save him. Kimmel then pivoted to explain why the proposed cuts to the Affordable Care Act would be so devastating to families who needed the specialized care he’d just witnessed. It was raw, honest and timely in a way previously unseen on late-night TV.
In August, following President Donald Trump’s bizarre press conference on the Charlottesville tragedy, Kimmel doubled down, this time taking his monologue to speak directly to Trump voters. This guy is smart, I realized.
Just a few months later, Kimmel did it again when he took the stage the night following the shootings in his hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada. This also happens to be where I currently live, so I teared up along with Kimmel as he talked about the tragedy and vehemently called for stricter gun legislation
And it’s these human moments that have made me realize what perhaps men saw in Kimmel all along. He’s always been an everyman, only now he’s broadened his sensibilities to reach every person. He’s not as politically charged as Trevor Noah or Samantha Bee, but he’s certainly less afraid to take on a hot topic than Jimmy Fallon or James Corden.
Hollywood may disagree with me. Headlines still appear that out Kimmel as one of the most arrogant people in the industry. Jay Leno doesn’t like him. But for now, at least, I’m cautiously optimistic that Kimmel could be my next big thing.